Sermon: Pentecost 3, 10 June 2018, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Aidan’s

St.Aidan’s West Epping, 10th June 2018

REACTING AND RESPONDING TO JESUS

(1 Samuel 8:4-20; Psalm 138; 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35)

Prejudice can often blind us to important realities. Based on a limited understanding, many people label Moslems in general as violent people who oppress women, and mutilate people who disobey their laws. Prejudice was played on to justify brutal treatment of Negroes in America and Jews in Nazi Germany. And of course we remember those terrible stories that used to be told by Catholics about Protestants and by Protestants about Catholics.

And we make distorted assumptions about individuals in the news: not just about Donald Trump or President Kim or Vladimir Putin or Pauline Hanson or Tony Abbott or now Barnaby Joyce: people such as these seem to attract strong reactions. But I see Letters to the Editor from writers who always put the worst possible spin on any actions and motives of Malcolm Turnbull or Bill Shorten, who have a more straightforward style. Now all of these people are worthy of criticism – no doubt some more than others – but prejudice can blind us to the positive things they do or to important things we need to understand about them.

There is nothing new about all this. Jesus was a victim not only of misunderstanding, but of prejudice. People came to their own conclusions about him, false conclusions, and then they interpreted his words and actions in the light of those false assumptions, those prejudices. We hear about some of these in today’s Gospel reading, from Mark 3.

It is still the early days of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus is becoming known as a wandering teacher and healer around Galilee. People are hearing about his miracles: healing people and casting out evil spirits. However, Jesus hasn’t had any formal recognized training. He doesn’t have any official authority for all that he is doing – especially when he starts challenging accepted ideas about the Sabbath and other issues. It is not surprising that officials come from Jerusalem to look him over, and make a judgement about whether his ministry is acceptable: whether to approve of what he is teaching and doing, or to warn people against him.

What do people in general make of Jesus? Obviously he has gathered a number of folllowers together, including his apostles who believe that he is a very special teacher and leader: they see him as someone worth trusting and following, someone who has important things to say.

Others however think that he is out of his mind. After all, he probably had a decent carpentry business going in Nazareth. Now he has given that up to wander around Galilee, gathering a very motley group of people around him, teaching without proper qualifications, in a way that will make enemies as well as friends. No wonder Jesus’ family come to take him away, to look after him, and to see whether they can nurse him back to normality. Perhaps with a bit or rest and care he will be OK again. Is Jesus out of his mind?

Well, the experts who have come down from Jerusalem have another explanation. “He casts out demons by the prince of demons.” No: Jesus isn’t properly qualified. His teaching is controversial. He obviously isn’t respecting their real authority. He is challenging the truth of their understanding. He is teaching falsehoods, leading people astray. In fact he must be a bad man, trying to undermine their good influence. If he is doing miracles, it must be through the power of the Evil One: it could not be through the power of God.

This seemed to them a logical conclusion, but it was based on prejudice, together with these experts unwilling to examine their own assumptions. And Jesus quickly showed how illogical their conclusion was. “So I am using the power of Satan to destroy the work of Satan? If that is so, Satan is effectively fighting against himself. He is divided, and he is headed for a downfall. Is Satan really that stupid? Or could there be another explanation?”

And so Jesus gives his explanation of what is happening. “If you want to plunder the property of a strong man, you are going to have to tie him up, to imprison that strong man. He’s not just going to allow you just to take his possessions if he can stop you doing it.” Here is Jesus’ explanation of what is going on. Satan is certainly strong, but he is under attack by someone who is stronger. Jesus’ power and authority is greater than Satan’s, and Satan is on the way to defeat. Satan’s power is threatened by the coming of Jesus and the ministry of Jesus. And in due course, he will be finally defeated.

Jesus’ miracles, particularly as he casts out evil spirits, are attacks on the power of Satan in this world. They are signs of his coming defeat by Jesus himself.

Of course, we know now that by his death and resurrection Jesus has indeed ensured that victory. However even now the victory is not yet complete: so today we live in a world where we still see Satan’s work going on. But his ultimate defeat will come with the return of Christ and the final establishment of the kingdom of God.

These scholars had allowed their presuppositions about Jesus, their prejudices, to blind them to the real significance of what he was doing. And having shown them what was really going on, Jesus gave a very solemn warning, a warning that troubles many people two thousand years later. There are many things that can be forgiven, says Jesus. But there is one thing that cannot be forgiven: blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

This warning, almost a threat, has disturbed many people over the centuries. And perhaps the first thing I need to say is that anyone who is worried that they might be guilty of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit has certainly not committed this unforgiveable sin. But what is it?

We get a clue as we think about the people to whom Jesus gave this warning. These people were prepared to look clearly at the good things Jesus was doing in the power of God and then to call them the work of Satan, Beelzebul. These people were effectively calling good evil and calling evil good. They had a closed heart, a closed mind, rejecting the call of the Holy Spirit to look at Jesus, and consider whether he might in fact be God’s messenger. Jesus doesn’t say that these scholars had actually committed the sin, but he was certainly pointing to the danger of closing our minds and hearts to the word of God and grace of God.

The Holy Spirit is at work in the world, pointing people to the call of Christ and to the grace of God. Jesus is warning against closing our hearts to the call of the Holy Spirit. How can God forgive the person who knowingly and deliberately rejects his forgiveness? As I understand it, the unforgivable sin is only committed when someone makes the final decision to reject the forgiving grace of God, the Gospel of Christ.

It is not for me to say that any particular person has committed that sin. And I am sure that people can turn back and find God’s forgiveness even when they seem to have turned away from Jesus or turned against Jesus. Certainly no one who is genuine in seeking God’s forgiveness will be turned away by our gracious loving God, no what their past sins may be.

But there is another group of people in this story: Jesus’ mother and brothers and sisters, who think that he is all mixed up, and in need of their help and protection. In fact they are the mixed-up ones. Even Mary seems to be uncertain about what Jesus is doing. Jesus responds not by going with them, but by pointing in a new direction. Family ties are not merely those of blood.  There is another family: the family of those who seek to do the will of God: people like those who are eagerly listening to Jesus’ teaching, and who are ready to follow Jesus wherever he leads them.

Jesus came not only to do battle with Satan and to overcome the sin and evil of the world: he came also to establish a new family, the eternal  family of God. We know that Mary his mother, and James his brother, and perhaps other brothers and sisters did eventually prove to be members of that family, and became followers of Jesus: they may have been surprised at Jesus’ ministry, but their hearts were certainly not ultimately hardened. But right now they needed to understand that their agenda for Jesus was not God’s agenda. No doubt they went home rather mystified by what Jesus was on about. But in time they came to understand that Jesus was not just a member of their earthly family. He had come to bring them into the family of God and the kingdom of God.

Well, out of these words and actions of Jesus what can we learn? We can be reminded of the dangers of prejudice: we need to keep our minds open to what God is saying to us in unexpected ways, and sometimes by unexpected people. Remember that we are not to judge others: that is God’s business.

Let us heed Jesus’ warning not by fearing that God will reject us, but by holding fast our faith in the God of grace and forgiveness. And let us give thanks that God has called us into his eternal family: we are truly his children, and we are sisters and brothers together in Christ’s family.

Our hope is in the truly strong one who has bound Satan and will in time complete his victory over the evil one. As his Father calls us his children, so Jesus calls us his sisters and brothers, as we trust and follow him, who is indeed our Master and our Saviour. Amen.                           Paul Weaver